EATONTON, Ga. -- It was the late 1980s and Russell Dermond, a meticulous World War II-era Navy man and college honor grad, wanted to leave something for his children.
So at 58 he retired after spending much of his career with a company that owned clock brands Westclox and Seth Thomas and went into the fast-food business. Before long he would oversee a chain of 16 Hardee’s restaurants that ringed metropolitan Atlanta.
“There’s no doubt he did it for his kids,” his son, Keith Dermond, told The Telegraph on Friday.
The son, 55, spoke by phone after leaving a family attorney’s office in Atlanta in the wake of 88-year-old Russell Dermond’s slaying here and the vanishing and potential abduction of his wife of 62 years. The killing and subsequent disappearance of 87-year-old Shirley Dermond has baffled investigators since concerned neighbors discovered Russell Dermond’s headless body lying in his garage near the couple’s cars Tuesday morning.
He had most likely been killed the previous weekend, authorities have said. His head hasn’t been found.
As news crews from across the region have descended on the lakefront golfing community where the Dermonds settled 15 years ago, the grim nature of the case and the mystery surrounding it has captivated and worried locals.
“It’s all anybody’s talking about,” a woman visiting an inmate at the county jail said. The crime has attracted international attention and also generated its share of crackpot tips. On Friday afternoon, someone called the sheriff’s office claiming to be a psychic, offering investigators a sketch of the killer or killers.
The FBI has been called in because of the possible kidnapping of Shirley Dermond, and a criminal-behavior specialist may work up a profile of the suspect. In the meantime, the hunt still focuses on the whereabouts of the missing woman, who stands about 5-foot-2 and weighs 148 pounds. She has gray hair and blue eyes.
Earlier Friday, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said Russell Dermond’s autopsy yielded little to help deputies track down a culprit. “The official cause of death is craniocerebral trauma,” Sills said.
Because the slain man’s head was not found, it isn’t known whether he was shot, stabbed or suffered some other blow. The couple’s cell phones, keys and Shirley Dermond’s pocketbook were inside their $1 million house, which overlooks a wooded Lake Oconee cove in a cul-de-sac about a dozen miles northeast of Eatonton. Without much to go on from the autopsy, investigators are relying on other clues to pinpoint the timeline of the slaying and likely abduction.
Russell Dermond was last seen May 1 at a supermarket not far from his Carolyn Drive home. Shirley Dermond had worked the next day’s newspaper crossword puzzle, but no one had taken the couple’s May 3 mail out of their mailbox. That same day, last Saturday, the Dermonds failed to show up at a friend’s Kentucky Derby party.
Financial and phone records have not turned up anything to suggest the Dermonds would be the target of criminal activity, the sheriff said. Even so, their son, Keith Dermond, said that based on what investigators have told him, whoever is responsible might have picked them out for some as-yet-unknown reason.
“Our thoughts are with our mom now. There’s nothing more we can do for our dad. … Not knowing is the worst, just a horrible thing,” he said. “We’re not optimistic anymore after a week with no contact.”
In what seemed a plea to his father’s killer and his mother’s potential abductor, the son added, “Just tell us where she is. They didn’t deserve this. … It’s not fair. … They never hurt anybody.”
Russell Dermond, the son of an auto mechanic, was raised in New Jersey. He graduated from north Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University in three years, Keith Dermond said. He served in the Navy in the mid-1940s and went to work for General Time Corp., where he was director of what might now be called information services, data processing. His job sent him on trips across the country and abroad.
“He was such a family man. He was just devoted to his family,” Keith Dermond said. “He was a very hard worker, just a self-made man.”
His wife, educated at Barnard College in New York City, looked after their three sons and daughter in New Jersey.
“They were very sharp people,” Keith Dermond said of his parents. He described his mother as a fantastic bridge player who wowed him with her crossword-puzzle-working wits.
“There’s nobody who met her that didn’t love her,” the son said, adding, “and she never gossiped.”
Russell Dermond played golf until a couple of years ago. He and his wife were in such good shape that they liked to keep their age a secret. “I’m sure their friends are shocked to learn their ages now,” Keith Dermond said. He and his younger brother Brad, who live in Florida, followed their father’s footsteps in the restaurant industry.
The elder Dermonds, after living a number of years in a country-club community along the Chattahoochee River above Interstate 285, built their retirement home on Oconee in the late 1990s.
“They loved living on the lake. They just enjoyed the leisurely life, and they were enjoying the fruits of their labor,” Keith Dermond said. “I know they didn’t miss the Atlanta traffic.”
Losing them, he said, has left loved ones “devastated.” “We certainly would like to see some justice done.”